Education Trends, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles | May 14, 2023
How to do “fewer things, better” when your school has a staff shortage
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
This article + podcast episode might get you a little angry and a little fired up about working conditions. Feel free to listen if that kind of experience feels helpful, or skip it for now if not.
I have intentionally tried to avoid provoking rage, disillusionment, or talking about depressing topics on this podcast over the past two years or so because I feel like we’ve all heard enough bad news.
I used to need to beat the drum about inequities in school, and schools relying on teachers’ unpaid labor but I feel like those kinds of topics have been centered in lots of discourse and policy discussions in recent years. If I talk about the worst parts of teaching right now in a podcast for teachers, I wouldn’t be raising awareness anymore, as much as I would be just making you depressed and discouraged.
I used to feel like a lone voice in the wilderness years ago talking about self-care and work/life balance for teachers and now those ideas have rightfully gone so mainstream I feel like folks are tired of hearing about it.
I don’t have anything new to add to those conversations and morale is so low right now in schools. So I’ve really been trying to focus on topics that keep teachers feeling encouraged and focused on joy in their work instead of outrage at everything that’s wrong with the profession and all the injustices and inequalities being faced.
I’m super grateful for the folks who are still pressing on with those topics because it’s important work, but for me personally, I felt the best thing I could offer to you at this moment is something uplifting and positive.
I do think this article + podcast episode will be encouraging, too, but we’re also going to wade back into the waters of some stuff that’s frustrating about the profession. It’s necessary to do that sometimes in order to properly address what’s going on and create change.
I think school staffing issues have been one of the most difficult lingering effects of the pandemic for us to move past, and unfortunately, we’re continuing to see things trend downward. In fact, I think a lot of teachers have used the last few years to really prioritize tasks, cut back on unnecessary obligations, create better boundaries, and streamline their workload.
But if you’re constantly covering for absent colleagues because there are no subs, or not getting a prep or planning period so you can teach an absent coworker’s class, or doing the work of several teachers because there are long-term subs who are untrained (folks filling in the gaps until permanent hires are found) … your awesome productivity systems are going to break down.
That’s a major problem I’m hearing a lot of teachers talk about. The other is the guilt that comes from saying no or taking a day off. Some teachers have even been told explicitly that they should not take their sick days unless they absolutely have to because it’s such a burden on their colleagues.
I want to address that situation first, then I’m going to unpack some of the harmful school cultural norms that have gotten us to this place so we can consciously challenge the status quo, and then finally, I’m going to suggest three practical solutions.
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Should teachers avoid taking sick days and using leave when there’s a staff shortage?
It is my personal and professional opinion that all school staff and faculty are entitled to take all of their allotted days off whether the district has coverage for them or not.
There’s zero flexibility in the schedule for educators. Folks who work in schools have no option to switch shifts with colleagues or choose their vacation time like many other industries. It’s almost impossible to have a personal life that never overlaps with the school calendar. Your friends and family don’t plan their weddings and special events around that. Not everything in life can be planned in advance to accommodate a work schedule that has no flexibility, especially if you have kids or other caretaking responsibilities in which last-minute emergencies crop up often.
For these reasons — and quite a few more — I actually take an even more extreme stance on this, and say folks shouldn’t even have to be sick to use their allotted days off if they don’t have any personal day allowance. They should be able to use their sick days for whatever they need them for. It’s too much of a slippery slope to unilaterally determine what qualifies for a sick day: What about a mental health day? What about a preventative day, in which resting and having a break from work will likely keep you from getting sick physically or mentally?
Educators are already micromanaged and treated like children rather than professionals in so many ways. Let’s allow them to use their allotted days off without having to explain what they needed those days for…and certainly without making them feel guilty because there’s a sub shortage.
As a teacher, I always felt free to utilize my sick days however I wanted, because every admin I worked for understood that making teachers justify taking their **allotted paid time off** was a bad look. Teachers using sick leave for personal purposes was not this huge issue in most schools until there became a huge sub shortage.
Suddenly now it’s selfish to use your allotted days for anything other than dire illness. If you’re not dying, you better come in. Let’s be clear; this is a structural and systemic problem, and the buck’s getting passed to individuals.
So my opinion is: take your days off when you need them and do not feel guilty about it. It’s just that easy, right?
Of course not — otherwise this episode wouldn’t be needed. So let’s look at some of the ways educators feel pressured to come in sick, not use time off, not say no to extra-curriculars, cover for their colleagues without extra pay, and other hazards of teaching in a time of sub and staff shortages.
I think we’ve all seen teachers who set boundaries and prioritize their own needs, and have been blackballed for it, or at least judged for it, by either admin or other teachers.
There’s a cultural norm in K-12 education that teaching is a calling. If you care about kids, why would you WANT to do less? You should be giving 110% at all times and if you don’t want to dedicate all of your time and energy to the job, then you should just be in a different field. If you’re not willing to pitch in whenever and wherever you’re needed, why are you even in the profession?
This logic baffles me. We know what the teacher attrition rates are like. We see people burning out left and right because the goalpost keeps getting moved on teachers. You give 110% on something and then you’re told, okay great, now, I need you to give 120%, and also give 120% to these four other things.
I think it became clear during the early days of the pandemic during emergency remote learning that there will never be a limit on what’s asked of teachers. It will never be enough, and it will never be fully appreciated by all stakeholders.
So many teachers commented during that time that the more they showed themselves capable of doing, the more they were asked to do. With each new pivot they made, often overnight with no training or support, they were hailed as superheroes.
That lasted a couple of weeks max, and then the broader push societally became, either “That wasn’t enough, our students suffered because you were barely doing anything” or “Since you’ve shown how flexible and resilient you are and really rose to the challenge, we know you’re capable of being pushed to the limit for extended periods of time, and we can make you do the work of multiple teachers since we can’t seem to hire more.”
When you can’t win the game, you have to change the rules. This is what folks in power have been doing since the beginning of time, and it’s the solution here, too.
We have tackled both the societal norms and norms within school culture that make it very hard to say no and keep pushing more obligations onto educators. We have to be aware of the implicit expectations — things that are not usually things stated outright — which are baked into the school culture and easily internalized.
So let’s unpack some of the norms that influence school culture that can increase burnout. We’re going to talk about 3 in particular.
FTB (fewer things, better) principle #1: School is your community, not your family
The first is the sense of family or community that is established in schools. Many teachers are guilted into picking up the slack for absent coworkers and unfilled teaching positions because they’re told “We’re a family here” and family looks out for each other. I think it’s important to note that feeling like a family at work is not necessarily a bad thing and the phrase is not always used to manipulate. It can be used in a positive way, such as when a family member has died or you’ve had a baby. “We’re a family” lets you know you are loved and supported like family.
But that’s not always the case. I encourage you to question when and how this trope arises. What is the intent? What is the impact? Is it being said to make you feel loved and supported like a family member, or is it being used to exploit you for unpaid labor?
After all, you don’t get paid to help your family. A family dynamic also increases the pressure to go along with the status quo, as family members generally aren’t meant to question tradition. They pitch in and do whatever it takes, because it’s for their family.
And here’s the thing — you’re irreplaceable to your family. But your school family can hire someone else to take your place within a week.
So watch for when the school family analogy is being used just to manipulate you into doing all kinds of unpaid extra duties. Because here’s the kicker: the school family phrase makes it seem like we’re being pressured into going above and beyond for the kids when in reality we’re just doing it for the institution of school. The institution has failed to attract and retain educators, and your unpaid labor is propping up their failure.
And quick side note — this is part of why we need to fully fund our schools. There are a growing number of powerful individuals and groups who WANT to see public schools underfunded and failing, so they can divert the money to private and charter schools which they can personally profit from.
I don’t want to get off on a tangent about school choice, because I do think choice is important and non-public schools can be wonderful, but my point is that as long as our schools don’t have the funds and resources necessary to meet all of their students’ needs, the pressure on educators to work for free will continue.
So question the school family analogy when you hear it: just bring your awareness to the implications behind it. And when you’re choosing which words to use yourself, consider finding a term that’s a bit less loaded.
I really like the phrase school community. In a community you have a responsibility to work together and be cohesive, but without all the baggage and implied guilt trip of “letting your family down.”
FTB principle #2: You can be there for the kids AND the paycheck
Another reason teachers often get sucked into covering other duties during a staff and substitute shortage is because of the motivation and pressure to “do it for the kids.” How can you look in those sweet babies’ eyes and tell them they won’t have a coach this year? How can you let those precious ones down? It’s the kids who are going to suffer if you don’t say no!
“Do it for the kids, no matter what” was termed “the woman’s honor code” by Seth Nichols. He’s a former teacher who wrote an epic blog post years ago called “Why Teachers Are Walking Out”. He observed the teachers in his school — which, like most schools, was close to 80% women — and concluded that the tacit expectations ALL teachers feel are actually grounded in gendered expectations.
He observed how teachers in his school would do whatever it took to prove they were good caretakers and nurturers. It’s the woman’s honor code: do it for the kids, no matter the cost; and since teaching is a woman-dominated field, that pressure is felt by everyone regardless of their gender.
Yes, as educators, we are there for the kids. But the problem is that teachers’ pure intentions and genuine desire to make a difference have been exploited. The powers that be know if the school doesn’t provide what kids need to thrive, we as educators will pick up the slack. We will figure out a way to get kids what they need and work dozens of unpaid hours every week. We will make our materials from scratch and spend money from our own paychecks if it’s going to benefit kids. We’ve been conditioned to believe this is just part of the job.
And we’ll find ourselves neglecting our health, relationships, home, and even our own kids because the “school family” needs us, and we need to do “whatever it takes” for students.
And for many educators, there’s no clear alternative. No teacher wants to feel like they’re shortchanging kids. That’s an accusation which cuts to the bone for us. We won’t dare try to simplify or ask for what we need or insist our needs be met because that might give others the impression that I’m here for something other than the kids.
So the message that I’m really passionate about normalizing in the education space is this idea that you can be there for the kids AND the paycheck. This is not a volunteer position where you’re supposed to be there for purely altruistic reasons. You can enjoy making a difference and also enjoy paying your mortgage. These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.
The root of it for me is this: I believe teachers should have the opportunity to be fully actualized human beings, with career aspirations and hobbies and hopes, and dreams apart from only sowing into the lives of other people’s children.
We cannot agree to do “whatever it takes, at any cost,” because the cost is our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The cost is to everyone who’s in a relationship with us.
And ultimately, the students suffer, too, because when their teachers are so overwhelmed and overworked that they’re not able to show up as the best version of themselves each day, we get to the point we’re at now, in which many folks ultimately decide the sacrifice is just not sustainable.
We have to replace “do it for the kids, no matter the cost” with “find a sustainable way to be a great teacher AND have a great personal life.” We cannot sacrifice all of our time and energy for our job, which is ultimately just ONE way we make an impact on the world.
So I think it’s important to realize that when you’re saying no or setting boundaries, yes, the kids might lose out sometimes. But they also lose if you burn yourself out and quit, or are too exhausted to do your best work. And, you are not solely responsible for carrying the load. It can’t be all on YOU to be everything for every student. You have to make tough choices about your limits and where your time and energy are best spent.
FTB principle #3: Being a “team player” should not routinely require unpaid labor
The last school norm that makes it hard to do “fewer things better” during staff and sub shortages is that of being a team player. I think this is the hardest one for most teachers because they know if they don’t do something that has to be done, one of their coworkers will have to step up. That means burdening their friends and acquaintances with extra work, and who wants to do that?
This can lead to the crabs-in-a-barrel phenomenon, in which we don’t want to see anyone else rise up out of a bad situation and pull one another back down. It creates a culture in which we’re very wary of teachers who stand up for themselves and don’t allow themselves to be exploited. Because if another teacher sets boundaries, WE might have to pick up THEIR slack.
The folks who say no can make us uncomfortable because they remind us of how very precarious this whole institution of school really is, and how even a handful of people saying “no” can cause a domino effect. We’re afraid that we’re going to be left to pick up the pieces.
When we’re responding to each other from a place of fear, we’re not going to make wise, healthy decisions. When we’re angry that a coworker isn’t agreeing to do unpaid labor, our frustration is under saddle but misplaced.
You see, like the “school family” trope, “be a team player” is a phrase used almost always in the case of unpaid labor. Lesson planning and grading papers are your jobs which you’re paid to do. You’re not being a team player when you enter your own data into the computer. But when you’re asked to do other people’s jobs–their lesson plans, their class coverage, their paperwork– or things which aren’t part of the core of your job, this team player manipulation comes in.
The truth is that all the extra work that’s outside your standard teaching duties should be handled by someone who’s trained and paid to do it. For example, your school deserves aides to handle supervision duties during non-instructional time. You shouldn’t be pressured to do lunch and recess and cafeteria and bus and hallway duty.
Because when are those things happening? During your planning or prep time, when you’re supposed to be focused on your real job, planning and preparing lessons and assessing the work your students have done. Instead, you’re mopping the cafeteria floor because there’s no one else to do it and you want to be seen as a team player. So all the stuff that really moves the needle for your kids either doesn’t get done or gets done on your own time, for free, in the evening.
This norm has evolved into a survival mechanism for schools because they’re so underfunded and understaffed. The only way for schools to function with the level of resources they have is if everyone buys into the mentality that they’re part of a school family and need to do whatever it takes for the kids and have to be a team player.
So I think we have to be careful to examine our role in this racket. That’s not to say you should never pitch in and help out and do something that’s not in your job description — we’re going to talk in a moment about healthier ways to create change. But awareness is really the most important step. Because when we can clearly see what’s happening, we can be cognizant of the way we reinforce these beliefs one another.
Now let’s talk about 3 ways to push back against these norms.
FTB Solution #1: Channel frustration and anger into problem-solving, and speak up with solutions
I think a lot of teachers are afraid to speak up because they don’t wanna be seen as angry or complaining. We’ve seen colleagues face consequences for “being negative”.
But there are effective and ineffective ways to speak up. You can certainly say, “This is not right. I’m not going to stand for that, and I’m going to the union if you try to make me.” I was in the classroom for 11 years, and I think I used that type of approach maybe a total of three times. It IS very risky and it could have profound implications on your career trajectory.
This is not the go-to strategy you want to use every time you’re asked to cover for a colleague or do other unpaid labor, because frankly, in most schools you’re going to be asked to do something unreasonable every day. This is not an everyday strategy.
So be careful not to default to defiance, or making passive-aggressive remarks and then complying anyway. A lot of times these behaviors are intended to be pushback but they don’t work well. They’re sort of a last resort for people who feel powerful and don’t have many good tools in their toolbox.
One of the best approaches is speaking up with solutions. If you go to your admin in a professional, solution-oriented way, your “complaint” can actually turn you into one of the most valuable members of the faculty. Most of your colleagues will just talk about the problem behind the principal’s back. You, on the other hand, are approaching the principal directly with actual solutions. You’re not just saying, “This is unacceptable, fix it,” you’re saying, “We both know this situation is not ideal. I’ve been trying to brainstorm some alternative approaches here — can I share some of them with you?”
You’re either going to leave the discussion getting something closer to what you want, or you’re going to better understand the limitations and extenuating circumstances. Either way, you’re going to have more information about how to create change — you’re opening the door for new possibilities instead of just assuming you can’t do anything about it and things will always be terrible.
You want to have some ideas in mind when you approach your admin because they’re busy and overwhelmed too. They’re not mind readers and they don’t know what you need the way that you do. So figure out what you would like to happen and suggest ways to make it happen, rather than placing the burden on someone higher up to find a solution. The solutions they have may not work better for you.
Why not shape and influence the change yourself? Take the initiative to problem solve — that’s going to make you look good, not like a complainer.
When we’re talking about staff shortages, I’ve seen teachers rally together and insist on being paid an hourly rate to give up their prep periods to cover for colleagues. I’ve seen teachers initiate a vote about which committees and extracurriculars to temporarily suspend until staff shortages improve. I’ve seen teachers ask to have certain duties removed from their job responsibilities so they can focus on the core aspects of their work that support students.
You can say things like,
- “Sure, I can cover for my absent coworker for a couple of days while they’re out, but since I won’t have a prep period, that means I won’t have time to enter all the required grades and other data into the system. Could we sideline that for this week?”
- “Which of my responsibilities is least important to you right now, and can I take that off my plate this month to focus on covering for my colleagues?”
- “Could we postpone all nonessential meetings and delay committee work for the next two weeks to reinstate some planning time?”
- “I can help support the substitute teacher next door today. These are the tasks I was planning to get done in my prep time before and after school. Which of these responsibilities would you prefer that I set aside in order to work with the substitute?”
- “This additional duty is going to cut into the time I use for grading and assessment. I know it’s important to maintain timely feedback on student work and I want to prioritize that. What time during my contractual work hours can we set aside for me to do student assessment?”
- “Realistically, I won’t have time to do both of these new things you’re requesting this week, and I don’t want to let you down. Can you tell me which task is more important to you so I can be sure it gets done first, and then tackle the other task next week?”
Figure out what change you want to see and get together with colleagues to think about what you could propose as a solution. What something — even something small — could be done to ease the burden a little bit? Then when you speak up, you’re coming with solutions instead of just complaints.
FTB Solution #2: Stay in solidarity with other staff
A second way to stay on the “fewer things better” path even when there are staff shortages is to actively be in solidarity with other teachers’ work.
I think in every school there are a handful of teachers who feel like they are the ones doing all the heavy lifting. They’re the ones all the other teachers go to when they’re upset, and want these handful of outspoken folks to speak up for them. We see the same thing happening on social media, right? It’s the same people talking about the tough and controversial topics in education, and other people will DM them privately and say thanks for speaking up.
And what I hear from those teachers who’ve been doing the heavy lifting is that they’re tired of being the ones with their necks on the chopping block all the time, and what they really want is for other teachers to stand with them.
So maybe you don’t want to lead the change on a particular issue, but if another teacher is speaking up on it, show them support. If the discussion is happening online, share it and comment supportively on it. If it’s happening in a staff meeting, then nod, affirm, raise your hand and add an additional point to let your colleagues know you’re with that person rather than just thanking them afterward for speaking up.
I encourage every teacher to take a stand personally on at least one particular issue. Imagine if every teacher in your school did that. Imagine if every person took one injustice or inequity or exploitation seriously enough to say, “I’m going to find solutions for this and help our school do better.”
Imagine if only half your faculty did that — I mean, even that’s powerful! I know it’s unrealistic to expect that of others when we’re not even speaking up ourselves the way we know we need to, but if we could each focus on our part — if we could each pick one thing, one instance, in which we take the lead — school would be different.
We can find our aspect of change we’re willing to work toward and support others in theirs. Then instead of having all these overwhelming, unsolvable problems that feel impossible to overcome, we know: this issue is my thing, and I’m fighting for that. That issue is your thing, and I can count on you to advocate for that. We sign each other’s petitions, we back each other up in team meetings, we affirm one another’s school-wide emails, and so on.
THAT is creating a culture of teacher agency and empowerment. THAT is shifting the norms in your school where teachers don’t just sit back and let all the decisions be made for them. That’s taking an active role — in a very balanced, healthy way — to create better working and learning conditions.
FTB Solution #3: Practice quiet subversion
The final way to keep doing fewer things better despite staff shortages is to be quietly subversive.
I first talked about this back in 2015 when I wrote my book Unshakable, but I went into way more depth with it In Fewer Things Better, because it seems to become more important with each passing year. Teachers are being expected to do an increasing number of things that aren’t good for kids and that are completely burning them out, and as I shared, you can’t face every problem head-on because there’s too many of them. You do have to pick your battles, but you don’t just have to suck it up when it comes to all the other issues.
I think a lot of teachers are rule followers. They want to do things right. They want to be seen as caring and committed and dedicated, and so not doing something they’ve been told to do just isn’t a consideration. There’s a lot of fear placed in the hearts of teachers that they’ll be pink-slipped or blackballed if I don’t do what they’re told.
But all the best teachers I know are quietly subverting the system. They smile and nod, and then they close the door and do what’s best for the kids. They document stuff on paper like they’re supposed to, and then that teachable moment comes up and they run with it, whenever they can.
And I just want that to be said here publicly because obviously, someone who is employed by a school district is going to be reluctant to announce that. That’s why you think it’s not happening. That’s why you look at these teachers that you admire and you wonder, how are they doing all of that awesome stuff? How are they making all of this work?
They’ve either found a school that is a good fit for their values and they have a bit more freedom (which is often true for some of the more visible educators online) or — in the majority of cases — they’re being quietly subversive.
And by the way, both of those options are available to every person listening to this. A myth that I try really hard to debunk (both in the book and in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program) is this disempowering mode that we tend to fall into, where it’s like, I don’t have a choice or I can never be happy in this field.
You do have a choice. You’re a trained professional who brings a tremendous amount of wisdom and insight and life experience to the profession. You can choose to make some sacrifices to find a school where you can thrive.
That’s something that never stops amazing me in my work as an instructional coach: school culture is very different from one building to the next, even within the same zip code. All teaching jobs are not the same, and if your school is not valuing and respecting, and supporting you, you have options. You deserve to exercise your agency because this is your career, and this is your life.
And if you choose to stay where you’re at, don’t have to just do everything you’re told, if what you’re being told is not best for teachers or kids. The most effective teachers I know are not blindly following orders, they’re quietly subverting the system.
Where to get more support + resources
If you want to delve more into this, check out either the paperback, eBook, or audiobook version called Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most. There’s a free mini-course that goes with the book as well so you can figure out how to put the principles into action.
And if you want to do a really deep dive into streamlining every aspect of your work — from grading to lesson planning to parent communication and so on — that’s where the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club comes in. It’s professional development on productivity which has been used by tens of thousands of teachers since 2015 to maximize their contractual hours and stop working endlessly on nights and weekends. We’ll be opening the doors for early bird access in June!
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